Ford to Bolster Roofs in Some Models

The following article from the Detroit News mentions the $18 million dollar verdict awarded to the plaintiff in the case of Watson v. Ford Motor Company. The Bell Legal Group represented the plaintiff in this victory, calling attention to the improvements needed in vehicle safety.

December 5, 2006

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Ford Motor Co. — ordered to pay more than $250 million in suits involving SUV rollovers since 2004 — will improve the roof strength of many of its larger vehicles beyond what federal regulators have proposed.

In a Nov. 20 letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ford’s director of automotive safety office, James P. Vondale, disclosed that some versions of 11 models will have roofs 20 percent stronger than required.

NHTSA proposed a new standard in August 2005 that would require a vehicle roof to withstand a force equal to 2.5 times the vehicle’s weight (up from the current 1.5 times) while maintaining sufficient head room for a buckled-in average size adult male to avoid being struck by a crushed roof. A final rule won’t be in place until late next year at the earliest; automakers will have until at least 2011 to build the stronger roofs.

NHTSA’s proposal would result in “many future vehicles” having roof strengths able to hold between three to four times the vehicle’s weight, because automakers will have to accommodate large differences in those weights, Vondale wrote. For example, a 2006 F-250 can weigh as little as 5,300 pounds and as much as 7,600 pounds.

Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis emphasized that Ford’s approach to making rollovers less dangerous goes beyond roof strength.

“It’s a system approach,” he said, noting that restraints and safety canopies (similar to side-curtain air bags) also help protect passengers during a rollover. Ford has the safety canopies in 1 million vehicles; that figure jumps to 1.5 million by 2007.

Vondale told NHTSA in the letter that the lightest versions of the Expedition and its cousin, the Lincoln Navigator, would exceed the new standards. Also, some of Ford’s F-250 series trucks and E-Series vans would far exceed the new standards, matching the strength of a Volvo XC90, which has one of the strongest vehicle roofs on the market.

Stronger standards

NHTSA rejected doubling the standard, to three times the force, in part because the agency concluded it wasn’t economically feasible. Such a standard would have saved up to 135 lives yearly and prevented up to 2,500 injuries a year, NHTSA estimated. NHTSA said the 2.5 standard would save up to 44 lives a year and prevent up to 793 injuries.

Even with the lower mark, automakers have sought to exempt some vehicles, requested more time to comply and asked regulators to change tests to make them easier to pass.

Ford has been on the losing end of several rollover lawsuits and court decisions:

  • On Nov. 20, the parents of a teenager killed in a crash involving a 1995 Ford Explorer won $15 million in damages, claiming the roof wasn’t strong enough.
  • On Oct. 26, Ford was ordered to pay $31 million to a South Carolina teen who suffered brain injuries in a 2001 Bronco II accident.
  • In August, Ford lost an $18 million verdict in an SUV case in South Carolina.
  • Nov. 1, Ford lost its appeal to overturn an $82.6 million judgment for a woman paralyzed in an accident in California.

Ford is appealing all of the verdicts and faces other suits; it has also lodged a number of court fights to keep internal roof strength documents secret.

Higher standard

Ford Motor Co. said some versions of 11 of its vehicles will exceed a new standard proposed by NHTSA to increase vehicle roof strength from 1.5 times to 2.5 times unloaded vehicle weight. Here is a list and the strength:

F-250 Regular Cab
 – 3.6
F-250 Super Cab – 
F-250 Crew Cab
 – 3.6
F-150 Regular Cab – 
F-150 Super Cab
 – 3.1
F-150 Crew Cab
 – 2.9
Ford Expedition – 
Lincoln Navigator
 – 3.0
Ford Explorer
 – 2.9
Mercury Mountaineer
 – 2.9
Ford E-Series Van
 – 3.6